I stood quietly in the middle of the dojo floor and listened respectfully while Sensei yelled at me. He had progressed from yelling to screaming, and by now he had been screaming non-stop for thirty minutes. I was keeping track of the time by sneaking peeks at the clock on the wall at the end of the dojo.
It was quite impressive to witness Sensei’s ability to find new things to yell about, as well as his stamina for screaming. He certainly was a creative screamer, and apparently, I was giving him plenty of reasons to scream at me. I didn’t know where he was getting his energy from, but at least one of us had some staying power. Personally, I was exhausted, but knew better than to admit it.
Over the past half hour, we had established a predictable rhythm. My partner would attack me, I would defend myself, Sensei would scream, I would sweat, and when he finally stopped yelling at me long enough to take a breath, I would bow respectfully and shout, “Hai, Sensei!”
Every so often I would swipe the sleeve of my gi top across my forehead in a futile attempt to wipe the sweat off my face. It was the middle of July in Southern California, and the air conditioning in the dojo wasn’t working. Not only was the heat unbearable, but I was also wearing a heavy black gi that was the equivalent of wearing a carpet, and I was suffering from hot flashes that were so intense they threatened to knock me over faster than my training partner did. I tried to be nonchalant when the heat began to rise from my neck to my face, while my face turned bright red, then purple, and back to bright red as the flash subsided which was clearly evident in the full length mirrors against the wall in front of me. To this day I am quite certain that I must have been the first and only black belt in our entire Federation who had to deal with hot flashes during training.
However, I couldn’t let that distract me. I already had enough to deal with and needed every bit of concentration and brain power available to me. Standing directly in front of me was Sensei’s top black belt instructor and right hand man, Angel. Angel was my uke, which is ninja speak for training partner, and seemed to take a perverse pleasure in my discomfort as well as Sensei’s many innovative ways to hurl insults at me. At least he was young, and easy on the eyes, which was some consolation.
Sensei was still yelling when another hot flash threatened to bowl me over. I surreptitiously shifted my weight and felt my left leg quivering with pain and fatigue. We had spent the first thirty minutes of class working on the same technique, over and over and over again. It was the first technique from a list of twenty-seven that were on the agenda for the evening. The movement pattern ended with a deep lunge onto my left leg as I slammed Angel face down onto the mat.
Apparently my lunge wasn’t deep enough, and Sensei had me repeat the movement so many times that my strong dancer’s legs threatened to completely give out. At one point I was afraid that my quadricep was going to rip right off my femur. Finally, to ward off serious bodily harm, I respectfully asked if we could switch sides to give my left leg a break. As Angel obligingly grabbed the opposite lapel of my gi, Sensei threw his hands up in the air and roared, “NO! You haven’t got the first side yet!” Dear God, I was in hell. And we still had twenty-six more techniques to go. “Hai, Sensei!” I shouted automatically as my partner returned to the original side. To respond otherwise, or to question Sensei’s instruction would be the epitome of disrespect, especially for a student at my level.
Sweat flowed down the curve of my low back and between my buttocks. Once again, I tried to wipe the sweat from my brow before it could get in my eyes. For a short moment I wondered if the claims of my magic new eye-popping mascara would really hold up under this kind of pressure. It was guaranteed not to smear, smudge, or run, even under the most vigorous workout. I was certainly putting through the acid test.
If my eyelashes stayed lush, thick, and smudge-free after this evening I would buy an entire case of the stuff and give the cosmetic company a resounding endorsement and glowing testimonial. Another thought floated through my mind as I wondered how many other black belts worried about their make-up when they were being attacked. Then I began to wonder what exactly it was that possessed me to go to L.A. by myself to train with Sensei, anyway?
The truth is, I had been having a serious test of faith over the past few weeks, and had arrived at another tipping point in my training. Which is my secret ninja code phrase meaning I was thinking about quitting. Again. I have probably thought about quitting more times than all of the dojo’s students over the long standing history of the school combined, and was a standing joke among a few of the senior black belts. At one point they even had a pool going to see when I would quit, because I was so far out of my comfort zone and the most unlikely person to ever step onto the mat and start training, especially in my first year of training. If I missed a class, at least one of the guys would ask Marc where I was, followed by the question, “Did we scare her off?” His answer was always the same. “No. Not yet.”
Although I only thought about quitting, after just a year into my training, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t. It was too much a part of me and my life. However, this time it was different. I had been training for eleven years, and wasn’t sure if I should continue on, or call it good and close this chapter of my life. After all, I had gotten so much farther than anyone ever thought possible, including me. And I already had the distinct honor and privilege of becoming my Sensei’s first female black belt. In his twenty-year long history of teaching martial arts, I was The One, which is pretty remarkable considering that the man had to literally drag me onto the mat, kicking and screaming the entire time, and not in a good way. I guess the rest, as they say, is history.